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Love and its Critics

 | 
Michael Bryson
, 
Arpi Movsesian

9. Love and its Costs in Seventeenth-Century Literature

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ruth F. Glancy. Thematic Guide to British Poetry (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 43.
  • 2 Horace. Horace: Epodes and Odes, ed. by Daniel H. Garrison (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1 (...)

1The theme of love as resistance to authority is transformed and amplified in the lyric poetry of John Donne and Robert Herrick. In work filled with a sense of the fragility and shortness of life, these poets contribute to an ethos that has come to be known by the name carpe diem, a phrase made famous by Horace, “who in Ode, I. xi, tells his mistress that […] life is short, so they must ‘enjoy the day’, for they do not know if there will be a tomorrow”.1 Horace’s line, “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”2 (“Seize the day, put little trust in tomorrow”), tells Leuconoe, and all who have followed since, to live now, and love now, because each second of scruple, doubt, and delay brings men and women closer to a death that is non-negotiable and eternal. In poetry, and in life, the idea of death becomes love’s greatest ally in its battle against the demands of authority, convention, and law.

  • 3 Targoff, 165.
  • 4 Ibid., 166.

2Death hovers over the poetry of this period, and “English love poetry evolved through an understanding of human love as mortal”, a perspective that shines clearly through carpe diem poetry. These poems “magnify the pleasures of this world at the expense of the next”, drawing much of their power from “the nothingness that awaits lovers in the afterlife” as a means to persuade readers to live now and “embrace what this life has to offer”.3 We can explicitly connect this poetry to the earlier work of Shakespeare, as “English carpe diem poetry [follows] in the path of Romeo and Juliet, [imagining] the intensification of erotic experience by virtue of its temporal limits”.4 This intensification played upon an emerging sense of what we would now call atheism, rejecting the authority of father and state, religion and church:

  • 5 Ibid., 171.

For English Renaissance poets, the act of writing carpe diem lyrics required a decisive break with Christian metaphysics. There could be no mention of the soul’s eventual journey to heaven in poems that urge an immediate seizing of the present; there could be no deferral of joy in poems that imagine this day as the lovers’ only chance for bliss.5

  • 6 Ibid., 176.
  • 7 Julius Caesar 2.2.36.

3In a worldview that rejects the notion of an afterlife, that breaks with “Christian metaphysics”, and sees love in terms of “an immediate seizing of the present”, we see an intensification of the troubadour ethos. The carpe diem poems are revolutionary, “a stripping from the afterlife of all forms of pleasure that could compensate for erotic loss, […] overturning both Petrarchan ideas of heavenly continuity and English reactions to this Petrarchan paradigm”.6 In the carpe diem poets, the reactionary and flesh-denying poetics of the tradition running through Akiba and Origen to Dante and Petrarch meets its strongest challenge yet. Love, though it cannot prevent death, becomes the primary power behind the urge to live one’s own life and to make one’s own choices before that “necessary end”7 finally comes.

I. Carpe Diem in Life and Marriage: John Donne and the Critics who Distance

  • 8 Stanley Fish. “Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power”. In Elizabeth D. Harvey and Kath (...)
  • 9 John Roberts. “John Donne’s Poetry: An Assessment of Modern Criticism”. John Donne Journal, 1 (1982 (...)
  • 10 Ibid., 67.

4John Donne is perhaps the most famous writer of love poetry in the English language, a man who lived the carpe diem motif even more powerfully than he used it in his poetry; however, to dig to any depth in the commentary that surrounds him is to wander into territory filled with dramatic conflicts. Some critics—like Ilona Bell—portray a flawed but fascinating writer whose work is filled with passionate desire for beautiful women, and devoted love for a particular woman, while others—like Stanley Fish—regard Donne’s work as “sick”, and the poet himself equally so, someone who can be read only through “the pleasures of diagnosis”.8 Such extremes of analysis probably tell us more about the analysts than about Donne, as John Roberts observes: “I often feel that many books and essays on Donne tell me more about the critics writing them than they do about Donne’s poetry”.9 For Roberts, the goal of criticism should be to make “Donne’s poetry more, not less accessible to an even wider reading audience than he enjoys at the present time”.10 One wonders how declaring the poet and his work “sick” helps accomplish that goal.

John Donne, portrait after Isaac Oliver (possibly late 17th century, based on a work of 1616).11

  • 12 William Empson. “Rescuing Donne”. In John Haffenden, ed. Essays on Renaissance Literature, Vol. One(...)
  • 13 Achsah Guibbory. Returning to John Donne (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 3.
  • 14 Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1894) 4, https://books.go (...)
  • 15 Anthony Easthope. Poetry and Phantasy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 193.
  • 16 Catherine Belsey. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), (...)

5To understand Donne and his poetry, we will need to engage with his critics, but not, as William Empson remarks, on their terms: “The habitual mean-mindedness of modern academic criticism, its moral emptiness combined with incessant moral nagging, its scrubbed prisonlike isolation, are particularly misleading in the case of Donne; in fact, we are the ones who need rescuing, not the poet”.12 Where the critics enlighten, and even where they usefully enrage, we will look to them. But the weakness of such critical and scholarly communities is that they tend to talk primarily to each other, despite the best intentions of scholars such as Achsah Guibbory, who tries to make her work “accessible to the educated, interested general reader and the intelligent student”.13 Donne did not seek to be read by scholars, any more than Yeats or his imagined Catullus did, nor do “interested general reader [s]” often seek to approach his work through the various lenses of academic literary criticism rather than what Nietzsche calls “the lens of life” (“der Optik […] des Lebens”).14 Critical work insisting that a poem like “Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going to Bed” is merely an instance of “scopophilic male narcissism”,15 or that “the love poems of John Donne” express the “imperatives of empire” in which “[d]esire is boundless [and] formulated in a series of imperatives that do not invite debate”,16 has little or no interest in making “Donne’s poetry more, not less accessible”. Such work is primarily concerned with establishing the credentials of its various authors as properly “serious” and “professional” members of an academic literary establishment that long ago signaled its lack of concern with “the educated, interested general reader” who reads love poetry as something other than a coded expression of all the darkest impulses of the human species.

  • 17 Guibbory, 3.

6Donne’s passionate poetry reflects his turbulent life. Though the poetry is not a straightforward biography (a simple account of his life in verse), it is an emotional representation (impressionist, if not photorealist) of the complex man who wrote it. And while Donne’s poems engage with and challenge pre-existing literary forms like the Ovidian elegy and the Petrarchan sonnet, they are no more reducible to those forms than they are to “imperatives of empire” or “scopophilic male narcissism”. To read poetry in this way, reduced to “the pleasures of diagnosis”, is more lawyerly than literary, more prosecutorial than poetic. Poetry treated in this way is essentially a corpse undergoing an autopsy, dead to the very readers that academics as teachers ostensibly hope to reach, if as Guibbory argues, “the survival of the humanities”17 is of any concern.

  • 18 Richard Baker. A Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: Printed by George Sawbridge at the Bibl (...)

7It is in the life of the poet that we will find the life of the poetry. Born in 1572 to a Catholic family in a militantly Protestant England, John Donne spent a lifetime never quite fitting in, never quite belonging to any group or institution to which he attached himself. By his late twenties, Donne had been a sailor on military expeditions, a student of law at the Inns of Court in London, and had already shown the tendency to restlessness and contradiction that would characterize him throughout his life. Donne was “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visiter of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses” who later in life “became so rare a Preacher, that he was not only commended, but even admired by all that heard him”.18 The “great visiter of Ladies” can perhaps be seen in the famous—and critically oft-abused—Elegy 19, “On His Mistress Going to Bed”. In urging “His Mistress” to remove her clothes just a little more quickly (“in a series of imperatives” that according to Catherine Belsey apparently should have invited “debate”—one can only imagine the Parliamentary-style bedroom encounter the critic imagines as more appropriate), Donne praises the glories of nakedness:

  • 19 John Donne. John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. by A. J. Smith (New York: Penguin, 1971), 1 (...)

Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys […].
19

8Here, Donne matches two ideas he will often pair in his writing—the Neoplatonic concern (seen in Peter Bembo’s speech from The Courtier) with ascending beyond the body to experience the fullness of joy, and the more radical idea of experiencing “whole joys” in and through the body itself. This pairing is incredibly important for understanding the dynamics of love, especially erotic love in Donne’s poetry. His insistence that bodies are not shameful fleshly prisons inside which noble souls are entrapped, but beautiful and worthy of celebration, exploration, and desire, is the next step in the journey we have already seen Shakespeare taking, away from the nearly disembodied idolatry expressed by the poetry of Dante and Petrarch. Donne returns to the open eroticism, the fleshly sexuality and passion of the troubadour and trobairitz poetry. We see further evidence of this ethos in the Elegy, when Donne’s speaker both uses and mocks the religious imagery of love:

  • 20 ll. 17–24, Donne, 125.

Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
20

9While the male speaker very likely has his “flesh upright” here, the phrase has a less humorously salacious meaning as well: flesh is “upright”, good, worthy to be praised and not condemned. It is not the flesh and its desires that come in for mocking here so much as the urge to cloak that flesh in the robes of religion—the joke is made rather obvious by the reference to “Mahomet’s Paradise”, an image of “infidelity” (from a Christian perspective) that both satirizes and amplifies the philosophical and theological unease of bien pensant readers, whose “right thinking” takes human sexuality and warps it into sin, while promising—in “Paradise”—to reward abstinence with delight (referencing the myth of the seventy-two virgins— houris—promised in the Islamic concept of heaven, loosely derived from the Qur’an, 56:35–37). Here the idea of carpe diem is presented as opposing the claims of religion—though with the safety of hiding behind the notion of “false” religion, as an English reader would see it. Erotic love, practiced with “Full nakedness”, not only redeems flesh (or demonstrates that it never needed redemption in the first place) by showing it “upright”, but it renders “angels” (whether from good or evil “sprite[s]”) unnecessary.

10However, it is the motif of exploration that catches the eye of many critics today. Donne’s speaker requests permission to “explore’ the naked body of “His Mistress” like a Walter Raleigh licensed by Elizabeth I:

  • 21 ll. 25–32, Donne, 125.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
21

  • 22 Achsah Guibbory. “‘Oh Let Mee Not Serve So’: The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies”. English Lite (...)
  • 23 Ibid.

11Guibbory argues that this is a masculine power play, and a metaphor for politics: “Donne repeatedly in these poems envisions relations between the sexes as a site of conflict, thereby mirroring a larger society in which there is considerable anxiety about the lines and boundaries of power”.22 Where the present authors see love in Donne (and others) as anti-authoritarian, Guibbory sees its use as authoritarian and as part of a pattern of “persistent misogyny”,23 as the male speaker subjugates both the mistress and the “new-found-land”:

  • 24 Ibid., 822.

At the beginning of this passage the woman is the monarch, providing a license, but the moment she gives this license she loses her sovereignty. […] The man becomes not only explorer but conquerer, and she becomes his land and kingdom. The repeated possessives reinforce the sense of his mastery, and by the end of this passage he has now become the monarch, setting his “seal”.24

  • 25 Ibid., 821.
  • 26 Here, the observation of Foucault is useful: “The relationship of power and the rebelliousness of f (...)

12Guibbory goes on to argue that Donne’s poetry “betrays a discomfort with (indeed, a rejection of) the political structure headed by a female monarch. Intimate private relations between man and woman and the power structure of the body politic mirror and reinforce each other”.25 But in her drive to read the Elegy as mysognistic and patriarchal, Guibbory underplays any sense of the mutuality of the power dynamic—dominance and submission26—in her own description of the poem. The speaker asks for “License”, performing his exploration of the woman who is figured as both Queen and land, dominant and submissive. The speaker remains licensed throughout—that formal permission is neither usurped nor withdrawn—and is thus submissive, while he remains the explorer, and is thus dominant. The logic is one of contraries as complements, a yin-yang of eroticism whose key can be found in the line “To enter in these bonds is to be free”. Bound and free—on both sides.

  • 27 ll. 41–43, Donne, 125.
  • 28 R. V. Young. Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crasha (...)
  • 29 For further discussion, see Michael Bryson, The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as Kin (...)
  • 30 Here we can see in Donne a reworking of the idea of the woman as angel, found in so much Italian po (...)

13The “licensing” power of the woman is further enhanced by being transformed from monarchical to divine power; all women, including the “Mistress” being spoken to here, “are mystic books, which only we / Whom their imputed grace will dignify / Must see revealed”.27 The idea of “grace” here places the male speaker in a position distinctly inferior to that of the woman being addressed, who is figured as God reaching out in mercy toward a sinner. Grace, the divinely-given power that compensates for the inability of “fallen man” to “save himself in his own corrupt nature” repairs the ability of the sinner to reach toward the good, as “freedom of will is precisely what grace restores”.28 Having grace “imputed” to them, the “we” who are so gifted are treated as if worthy of the gift, much in the same manner that a sinner who has grace imputed to him is treated as if he is worthy of God.29 Not only do we not have an image of masculine subjugation of the feminine here, but we have something entirely different: an image of nearly-godlike female power over a male supplicant.30

  • 31 Robert Sternberg. Cognitive Psychology (Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage, 2009), 512. This kind of thinki (...)

14Readers and interpreters who are determined—for professional or political reasons—to see this poem as “evidence” that John Donne rejects “the political structure headed by a female monarch” transform his poetry into a tool of oppression (while arguing that they are merely “revealing” the oppression already inherent therein). Such critics reflect the voices of the gilos (the jealous and controlling spouses), rather than those of the lovers in troubadour and trobaritz poetry. But “On His Mistress Going to Bed” is only evidence of imperialistic misogyny if one can no longer see the poetic forest for the critical trees. Psychologists describe such thinking as confirmation bias, a filtering of ideas whereby we “seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation of what we already believe”. For example, “a doctor [who] assumes that a patient has condition X, […] may interpret the set of symptoms as supporting the diagnosis” without regard to any counter-evidence of any kind.31 In other words, we see what we are determined to see. So, at least, does Bell describe recent trends among Donne’s critics:

  • 32 Ilona Bell. “Gender Matters: The Women in Donne’s Poems”. In Achsah Guibbory, ed. The Cambridge Com (...)

For theoretical or ideological reasons, twentieth-[and twenty-first-] century critics generally assume that the woman in Donne’s poems is a shadowy figure, the object or reflection of male desire, a pretext for self-fashioning, a metaphor […]. a sex object […]. In the last two decades […] it has become clear that it was not Donne, but the critics who disembodied and disregarded the women in Donne’s poems.32

15What critics see—and authoritatively present to students and general readers as that which there is to see—in poetry and other forms of literature changes with the passing of the years, decades, and centuries. But the poetry remains, its words unchanged by the changing fashions of academic and cultural authority.

  • 33 Ibid., 208.
  • 34 ll. 28–29, Donne, 125.

16Even Bell, whose readings of Donne are less pinched than those of other critics, cannot resist describing the dynamics of “On His Mistress Going to Bed” as a matter of “masculine desire to conquer and control”, and “masculine dominion” over the woman,33 while ignoring the line in which the speaker sues for “Licence” from the woman. It is the woman—in the role of monarch and grace-giving deity—who grants that “Licence” to the male explorer, whose exclamations of joy at his “kingdom” and “empery”34 are made over “dominion” (to borrow Bell’s term) which is merely on loan, not owned by the male of the poem. One begins to wonder at the unanimity of critics who insist on morally condemning the poem and its male speaker, as if there is a misandrist imperative at work which demands that male sexuality (at least in relation to women) be regarded and described negatively. When even an obvious admirer of Donne and his poetry seems compelled to describe male sexuality in the poem as “a military campaign”, as “control”, and as “dominion”, it is tempting to think that there are barely-suppressed whispers of rape in the background. Would a poem by Sappho, or a diary entry by Anaïs Nin be treated in the same way?

  • 35 ll. 62–64, Donne, 162.
  • 36 ll. 65–67, Donne, 162.
  • 37 l. 68, Donne, 162.
  • 38 l. 70, Donne, 162.
  • 39 Bell, 204.

17Perhaps Donne himself can be looked to for some guidance. In his third Satire, he emphasizes the need to judge in terms of particulars. He gives two examples: “Careless Phrygius”, who “doth abhor / All, because all cannot be good, as one / Knowing some women whores, dares marry none”,35 and “Gracchus”, who “loves all as one, and thinks that so / As women do in divers countries goe / In divers habits, yet are all still one kind”.36 Phrygius mistakenly thinks all women bad, while Gracchus mistakenly believes all women good. But reason demands that we throw off such indiscriminate “blindness”37 and value the particular, the individual, while leaving behind the generalizing patterns of ideology and ignorance: “and forced but one allow”.38 Far from there being any “persistent misogyny” in his poetry, Donne’s verse often shows us women and men who choose each other under circumstances of extreme duress, neither one using the other in any kind of power play, but facing the consequences of their mutual choice together. Donne’s shortest poems, his epigrams, show us “clandestine lovers whose daring and devotion triumph over the death they incur”.39 This can easily be seen in “Hero and Leander”:

  • 40 ll. 1–2, Donne, 149.

Both robbed of air, we both lie in one ground,
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drowned.
40

18And in “Pyramus and Thisbe”:

  • 41 ll. 1–2, Donne, 149.

Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear
Slain, cruel friends, by parting have joined here.
41

19“Disinherited” paints a rather stark portrait of the economic consequences that could ensue for such “clandestine lovers” in Donne’s own day:

  • 42 ll. 1–2, Donne, 151.

Thy father all from thee, by his last will,
Gave to the poor; thou hast good title still.
42

  • 43 David Edwards. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit (New York: Continuum, 2001), 282.

20This latter situation is exactly what Donne experienced when he became just such a clandestine lover as Leander or Pyramus. No longer content to be a “great visiter of Ladies”, Donne fell in love with Anne More, the daughter of Sir George More (the Chancellor of the Garter), and the niece by marriage to Sir Thomas Egerton (the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and Donne’s own employer). Socially, Anne More was of a much higher rank than Donne, and any officially sanctioned match between the pair was impossible. The growing love between the mismatched couple (also mismatched in age, as Donne was in his late twenties, while More was in her mid-to-late teens when their relationship began), and the difficult position that their affection put the lovers in, is reflected in Donne’s poetry, where he writes of “two situations which he had never experienced before and which changed the course of his life: courting a young woman whom he desperately wanted to marry despite the obvious difficulties, and being married in defiance of society’s code of conduct and at the cost of his career”.43 Getting marrried cost them everything: money, career, and future prospects. But like the lovers of his epigrams, John and Anne chose each other in spite of the worst the rule-bound world of fathers and monarchs could throw at them.

  • 44 John Stubbs. John Donne: The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 154.

21In late 1601, “about three weeks before Christmas”,44 John Donne and Anne More married in a secret ceremony. The anxiety that ensued “about the trouble that he and [Anne] had now brought on themselves” resulted in the circulation of “a joke about the furtive couple’s situation”:

  • 45 Ibid., 154.

Doctor Donne after he was married to a Maid, whose name was Anne, in a frolick (on his Wedding day) chalkt this on the back-side of his Kitchin-door, John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.45

22The consequences were as severe as they were immediate when George More found out about the clandestine marriage, from Donne’s own letter to him on 2 February 1602. After informing More of the marriage, Donne tries to explain why he and Anne had deceived him by marrying secretly, and asks More not to be too angry with either Anne or himself:

  • 46 L.b. 526: Letter from John Donne, The Savoy, London, to Sir George More, 1601/1602 February 2. Earl (...)

I knew my present estate lesse then fitt for her; I knew, (yet I knew not why) that I stood not right in your Opinion; I knew that to have giuen any intimacion of yt had been to impossibilitate the whole Matter. […] But for her whom I tender much more, then my fortunes, or lyfe (els I would I might neyther ioy in this lyfe, nor enioy the next) I humbly beg of yow, that she may not, to her danger, feele the terror of your sodaine anger. […] if yow incense my lordship [Thomas Egerton], yow Destroy her and me; that yt is easye to give vs happines, And that my Endevors and industrie, if it please yow to prosper them, may soone make me somewhat worthyer of her.46

23The letter simply enraged More, setting him on to do exactly what Donne had hoped he would not do: turn Egerton against Donne, who was immediately fired from his position as Egerton’s secretary, imprisoned, and on his release, left without any practical prospects for employment.

24A poem like “The Canonization” reflects this experience of forbidden love, punished by all the forces a society determined to control the marriages of its (adult) children can bring to bear. Its first stanza captures the sense of frustration and helplessness at being punished for following one’s own heart:

  • 47 ll. 1–9, Donne, 47.

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace,
Or the King’s real, or his stampèd face
Contemplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.
47

  • 48 Nancy Jo Coover Andreasen. John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary (Princeton: Princeton University (...)
  • 49 The most infamous of the “rakes” was John Wilmott, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, whose life and poetry (...)

25A critic like Nancy Andreasen reduces this poem to a mere rehearsal of conventional elements, claiming that “Donne is dramatizing the stock comic situation of an extramarital love affair between an aging man of the world and a youthful mistress, an affair which further injures the debilitated rake’s already-ruined fortune”.48 But this shrinking of the poem from a howl of protest against an unjust world (in which daughters are the property of fathers, marriages are economic arrangements made by and for those fathers, and lives can be ruined by the simple, yet radical, act of choosing for oneself) to a rather tired exercise in comic convention is of a piece with many of the readings we have already encountered. It is a perfect example of how critics often rewrite poems. But the “five grey hairs” of the third line are not those of an aging man of the world—whose worldliness and age would have gifted him with many more than five—nor is the “ruined fortune” that of a rake who has simply spent too much keeping up with the young girls he likes to entertain and be entertained by. All of this can be seen in the references to official positions, the kind Donne depended on, and has now lost: “get you a place”, but “let me love”; “Observe his Honour, or his Grace”, but “let me love”. It can also be seen in the mention of approval, a social currency the “rake”49 actively disdains, but on whose continuance Donne had absolutely relied: “what you will, approve”, but “let me love”.

26The poem’s second stanza raises another howl of protest. Whom have we injured with our love? The answer, of course, in an economy in which daughters are valuable property, is George More:

  • 50 ll. 10–18, Donne, 47.

Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.
50

  • 51 Stubbs, 170.
  • 52 Ibid., 174.

27Lawyers and litigious men trying to move quarrels began to interfere in Donne’s situation immediately: “Sir George determined to extricate his daughter from Donne if it was humanly and legally possible. He had instigated proceedings, and a hearing was due at the High Commission to assess the legality of the marriage”.51 But both Anne and John Donne insisted that they had not only plighted troth (a standard of commitment often held to be as binding as a public marriage ceremony), but were legally married. Some weeks later, “the Archbishop of Canterbury himself finally ruled that the marriage was valid in the eyes of the established Church”.52 For the Donnes, however, the economic struggles had only just begun, as John Donne would be turned down for every position to which he applied, with the exception of a temporary job as the traveling secretary to Sir Robert Drury in 1611–12, until he took orders in the church in 1615. For fourteen years, the Donnes struggled, as the society of their time and place punished them for choosing each other, rather than allowing a father (or fathers) to choose instead. In this context, the fourth stanza of “The Canonization” takes on a meaning wholly alien to Andreasen’s scenario of a ruined rake with a young mistress:

  • 53 ll. 28–36, Donne, 47–48.

We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love.
53

  • 54 ll. 44–45, Donne, 48.

28The “pretty rooms” are refuges against the bruising demands of a world that sneers at the foolishness of lovers, and if the world will afford no place for love, at least “a well-wrought urn” will give the lovers a final unified resting place, much after the fashion and feeling of those resting places afforded to the lovers in the epigrams. As the poem ends, the idea of it being reducible to a stock comic situation becomes contemptible and absurd. After their deaths, the lovers become a pilgrimage destination for future lovers who are still struggling with the Egeuses, Capulets, and Mores of the world. At the grave, these new lovers pray that their own fathers will learn from the example of the dead couple, now canonized as saints, and grow mild: “Countries, towns, courts: beg from above / A pattern of your love!”54

29But as powerfully evocative as “The Canonization” is, we do not have a precise date for its composition, which opens the door to those critics who wish to separate the poet from the poem. As Guibbory argues:

  • 55 Achsah Guibbory. “Erotic Poetry”. In her, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge: Cam (...)

Readers have long identified the “mutual love” poems with Donne’s secret courtship and marriage to Anne More. […] Certain lyrics that privilege the sacred space of clandestine love and describe the world’s opposition fit with what we know of Donne’s situation at the time. Yet so long as we lack evidence for the dates and occasions of Donne’s lyrics, poems like “The Relique” or “The good-morrow” [or “The Canonization”] must frustrate the autobiographical readings they invite.55

30Must? Note the language of compulsion and authoritative limitation. The poems may “fit with what we know of Donne’s situation at the time”, yet we are told, ex cathedra, that “we lack evidence” (or what the critic considers admissable as evidence, a dated manuscript), and we must continue to hold off identifying the life of a poet who lived fin’amor, from the poetry which describes fin’amor, love between individuals who face all the consequences the world can throw at them for making their choice. Just as much current scholarship on the troubadours would deny readers the ability to see love poems as anything other than documentary evidence of misogyny and performative narcissism, so it would seem that many specialists in John Donne are determined to tell us to reject the evidence of the words in the poems themselves, and reject what we know about the correlation between those words and the known facts of the love and life of John and Anne Donne. The argument is an oddly familiar one, that correlation is not causation. But while such reasoning is valid in the realm of statistics, it is a great deal shakier in other realms (there is a reason that the argument is often resorted to by tobacco companies and climate-change deniers), and it sounds especially jarring coming from literary critics.

  • 56 l. 2, Donne, 53.
  • 57 l. 4, Donne, 53.

31But despite his critics, Donne’s passions will not be contained—even the long Platonic tradition of regarding human love as the lowest rung on a ladder leading to the divine are made to serve the purposes of a poet who will not be reduced to quiet submission and conformity. In “The Extasie”, Donne writes of a love between two who are one, a passion at once reflective and active, spiritual and embodied. Beginning with a description of “A pregnant bank swell’d up to rest”56 where the lovers “Sat we two, one another’s best”,57 the poem portrays these two who are one as being both in and out of their bodies as they silently gaze at one another. Their hands and eyes are joined:

  • 58 ll. 5–13, Donne, 53–54.

Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
So
to’ intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
58

32At the same time, their “souls” are suspended outside of their bodies, in the same silent contemplation of each other:

  • 59 ll. 14–20, Donne, 54.

As ‘twixt two equal armies Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls (which to advance their state
Were gone out) hung ‘twixt her and me.
And whilst our souls negotiate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And we said nothing, all the day.
59

33There is no “masculine desire to conquer and control” or “masculine dominion” here, despite the metaphor of souls as armies. Instead, we have silent mutuality, a communication that does not require words, as painfully sincere yet artfully deceitful as words can so often be. We have a sense of souls and bodies that are—like the lovers—themselves two-who-are-one. The souls can come forth from, but are always grounded in the bodies that are crucial parts of the “We” who “like sepulchral statues lay”. The bodies are not mere objects, not fallen flesh to be derided and condemned, but a crucial part of the entire two-in-one reality that is being described. Each dynamic is fueled by love—between the two lovers, and between the bodies and souls themselves. The pairing is mutually desired and mutually sustaining, and that is the secret referred to by the following lines:

  • 60 ll. 21–28, Donne, 54.

If any, so by love refined
That he soul’s language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
Within convenient distance stood,
He (though he knew not which soul spake
Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take
And part far purer than he came.
60

  • 61 A similar spirit is found in Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” (published in Robert C (...)

34The “soul’s language” is silence—mutually understood—a touch that is offered and accepted, felt both with and without the bodies of the lovers. The imagined audience here is someone who understands that these bodies and souls are not opposites, but necessary complements, ingredients or elements of a far more complex synthesis, a “new concoction” (using the language of alchemy as psychological and/or spiritual transformation and purification as well as physical transmutation). Observing this, even hearing this, the imagined other is himself or herself transformed through the realization that the binary division between body and soul is an illusion, just as is the binary between lover and lover. The two are one, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.61

35The poem then goes on to make explicit that bodies and souls are a synthesis of elements that forms the individual self of each lover, who are themselves one, a union that forms the highest and most profound whole:

  • 62 ll. 49–56, Donne, 55.

But O alas, so long, so far
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though they are not we, we are
The intelligences, they the sphere.
We owe them thanks, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.
62

36Their bodies are a necessary part of the synthesis, the whole. The “intelligences” without “the sphere” are like an energy without a vehicle through which to express itself, thus the bodies are not “dross” (unnecessary trash) but “allay” (part of an alloy, two substances combined into a stronger and more complex whole). Returning once again to the imagined other who sees, hears, and understands all of this, the poem concludes by erasing the difference between the disembodied and embodied lovers:

  • 63 ll. 68–76, Donne, 55–56.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change, when we’are to bodies gone.
63

37This “dialogue of one” is a dialogue of oneness: the oneness of opposites that are not opposites. The “lover” who understands this, who sees “Small change” between the language spoken in silence between the lovers without and within their bodies, understands the both sacred and radically secular point this poem makes about love: the highest form of love is that which is had here, now, with that he or she who is right in front of you.

  • 64 ταῖς ψυχαῖς κάλλος” (Plato. Symposium 210c).
  • 65 “l corpo è cosa diversissima dalia bellezza, e non solamente non le accresce, ma le diminuisce la s (...)

38Much of the essence of “The Extasie” is expressed in that idea, and much of the challenge this poem makes to Platonic and Neoplatonic orthodoxies about love can be understood through this idea as well. There is no need to climb a “ladder of love”, no need to turn one’s focus away from those beloveds in the here and now, in the world of flesh and blood, in order to experience the “true” or “transcendent” love that will allow the lover, as Diotima argues, to come to know “the soul’s beauty”.64 There is no need to believe, in Peter Bembo’s terms, that “the body is something very different from beauty, and not only does not increase beauty but lessens its perfection”.65 “The Extasie” sweeps all of this aside as so much body-shaming, flesh-hating, life-denying nonsense. The love portrayed in “The Extasie” is already fully embodied and fully spiritual, passionately physical and supremely sacred all at once. Let those understand who are able, the poem suggests, and they will part more pure and whole than when they came.

  • 66 Merritt Hughes. “The Lineage of ‘The Extasie’”. Modern Language Review, 27: 1 (January 1932), 2, ht (...)
  • 67 Ibid.
  • 68 Ibid.
  • 69 Frank A. Doggett. “Donne’s Platonism”. The Sewanee Review, 42: 3 (July–September 1934), 285.
  • 70 Ibid., 288.
  • 71 Ibid., 289–90.

39And yet, this poem has caused more arguments between the critics than perhaps any other of Donne’s works. With “The Extasie”, the critical drive to allegory, to diagnosis, to a hermeneutics of suspicion, to seeing the poem in terms of anything other than open, embodied passion becomes crystal clear. As far back as 1932, Merritt Hughes is arguing that the poem is not passionate at all, but is “merely the dramatisation of a conflict and reconciliation of ideas which had long been familiar in Italy and France, if not in England”.66 Hughes works hard to put “The Extasie” back in the cramped box of convention by insisting that it is a “minor heresy [to believe] that The Extasie was felt by its author as a revolt against Platonism”,67 and by arguing that “we owe The Extasie to the stream of tradition rather than to an original dramatic impulse on Donne’s part”.68 In this last gesture, we can see the early stages of the “death of the author” impulse at work. “Tradition” wrote the poem, not Donne. By 1934, Frank Doggett is reclaiming the poem for passion by describing “The Extasie as “Donne’s most complete declaration of the nature of love, and of the part taken by soul and by body in that passion”,69 arguing that “[t]he inner meaning of Donne’s thought, here, is the necessity of the functions of both soul and body for complete love”.70 At the same time, however, Doggett contends that Donne’s poem is essentially in agreement with the anti-body mysticism of Bembo in The Courtier.71

  • 72 Charles Mitchell. “Donne’s ‘The Extasie’: Love’s Sublime Knot”. Studies in English Literature, 1500 (...)
  • 73 Ibid., 100.

40By the 1960s, Charles Mitchell argues that “The Extasie” portrays a love in which body and soul are indispensable parts of a larger whole. But Mitchell’s emphasis is Neoplatonic, for “The Extasie” does its work by showing “how the outward union of man and woman effects the union of body and soul within man”.72 Lovers (and observers) are shown in the poem as having “grown inwardly from a mere body to a synthesis of body and soul by the outgoing power of love”.73 Katherine Thompson reverses that emphasis in 1982, making an argument that serves as a counterpoint to those who try to shoehorn “The Extasie” into a tidy Neoplatonic container:

  • 74 T. Katharine Thomason. “Plotinian Metaphysics and Donne’s ‘Extasie’”. Studies in English Literature(...)

Even the initial stroke of wit in “The Extasie” depends on Donne’s turning the tables on the conventional Neoplatonists, or one should say, it depends on Donne’s inversion of their ladder of love. […] Donne, by fiat, begins with ecstasy achieved [… then proves] the compatibility of the lovers at the level of soul; and then has his speaker argue for descent on the ladder rather than ascent.74

41As Catherine Gimelli Martin observes, modern critical reaction to “The Extasie” has tended toward a reductive and cynical view:

  • 75 Catherine Gimelli Martin. “The Erotology of Donne’s ‘Extasie’ and the Secret History of Voluptuous (...)

most modern critics seem to agree that [Donne’s poetry] is typically or even universally put to cynically seductive purposes. But this consensus is both newer and more tenuous than it seems; only a generation ago, literary critics regularly followed Herbert J. C. Grierson and Helen Gardner in regarding the major love lyrics as sincere […]. This view first faded under the influence of Pierre Legouis, whose rereading of “The Extasie” as a seduction poem proved broadly influential among second-generation New Critics, for whom the ironic mode was fast becoming the insincere mode later canonized in Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning.75

  • 76 Ibid., 123.
  • 77 Ibid.
  • 78 William Blake. “There is No Natural Religion”. In The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, e (...)
  • 79 Martin, 123, quoting from Robert Watson, The Rest Is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English (...)
  • 80 Hamlet 1.2.76.

42What Martin calls “the new orthodoxy”76 insists that readers discount the presence of love and desire in Donne’s poetry as nothing more than a cynically seductive lie. But “The Extasie” shows us a Donne who cannot be contained by criticism that reduces sincere passion to tattered convention, turning “all forms of inwardness […] into mere social constructions”.77 Again, one wonders what it is about such reductively life-denying arguments that appeals to so many critics. It is as if we have trained several generations of academics to be like the man who, as Blake puts it, “sees the Ratio only” and thus “sees himself only”,78 so incapable or unwilling are they to see past what the troubadour poet Marcabru calls the fragmented, frait, in order to glimpse the whole, entier. Donne’s work demands that we see past the Ratio, past the fragmented, past the commitments of any contemporary critical school, in order to understand his desire. Perhaps a little less dissection and a little more synthesis is in order. As Martin argues, “[m]ore than any other poet of the period, Donne represents his inner search for religious and erotic authenticity”79 through the passionate intensity of his work. Donne, like Shakespeare, like Milton, is an entire world—a writer of astonishing virtuosity and versatility, a poet who can inhabit experience, emotion, and passion, yet maintain an ironic distance—he is at once an artist of the inside and the outside, the “is” and the “seems” of Hamlet’s retort to Getrude.80 One thing remains consistent, however. Donne’s poetry, far from being the merely conventional fare described by those critics who “wear the carpet with their shoes”, gives love its due. A more immediately playful poem like “The Sun Rising”, shows us a Donne who regards love and its pleasures and demands as far more important, and far worthier of respect, than the demands of the world and its temporary rulers. Starting with a variation on the alba form of the troubadours, the poem decries the presence of the sun, and its interference with the pleasures of love:

  • 81 ll. 1–4, Donne, 80.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
81

43In the alba, the rising of the sun threatens to betray the lovers, and calls an end to the all too brief night they have spent together, out of the reach and beyond the prying eyes of jealous spouses and a controlling world. Donne captures that sense of resentment against the sun, against the demands of the daylight world of law, loveless marriages, and obedience which ends only in death, by calling the sun a “fool” that serves the interests of the hateful and powerful, enforcing the schedule of a world that demands conformity. The question “Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?” has only one practical answer: yes. But Donne rejects and mocks the practical answer, insisting that such drudgery is for those even more foolish than the sun their messenger:

  • 82 Ibid., ll. 5–10.

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
82

  • 83 ll. 23–24 Donne, 81.

44The “pedantic” sun (fussy, punctilious, and over-eager to obey times and seasons) is a fit alarum for children and workers chained to the drudgery of low pay and long hours, a proper herald for foolish kings and the greater fools who serve them, a necessary prompter for the activities of insects, but it is no authority for those men and women who love. Love transcends the petty rules and forms, the bowings and scrapings of lives spent jostling for position in a hierarchical society, the strict schedulings of time into “hours, days, months”, man-made concepts which are merely “rags”. Love rejects the calls of the world for obedience, for Love is its own law, its own world, as Donne tells the unwelcome and too-bright morning star that has intruded upon love’s peace and quiet: “Princes do but play us; compared to this, / All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy”.83

45Finally, love makes lovers a world entire unto themselves, their own rulers, their own subjects, beholden to no one but each other. And it is in this state that true human happiness can be sought and found:

  • 84 Ibid., ll. 25–30.

Thou sun art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
84

46Where the lovers of “The Extasie” are two who are one, united each with the other in body and soul, the lovers of “The Sun Rising” become an entire world in their private room, within whose walls no laws but those of love hold sway.

II. The Lyricist of Carpe Diem: Robert Herrick and the Critics who Distort

47Though his name may not be as well-recognized as Donne’s, there are probably more readers who recognize fragments of the poetry of Robert Herrick than almost any other English poet save Shakespeare.

Robert Herrick, portrait by Edward Everett Hale, in The Hawthorne Readers, Book 4 (1904).85

48His most famous poem, “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time”, is for many readers the very definition of the carpe diem poem:

  • 86 Robert Herrick. The Complete Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. by Alexander B. Grosart. 3 vols. (London: (...)

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.
The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he’s a-getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And neerer he’s to Setting.
That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
86

  • 87 Macbeth 4.3.230–31.

49The famous carpe diem lyric is also a carpe florem poem: pluck the flower (of virginity) before it begins to fade. As Shakespeare observes in the opening lines of Sonnet 15, “everything that grows / Holds in perfection but a little moment”, and Herrick here asks, why wait? What are you waiting for? This deceptively simple poem challenges everything. In the absence of an afterlife (and the irony must be noted that Herrick was an Anglican minister, having been ordained at the age of 32 in 1623), life must be lived now, and time lost will never be regained, thus it is absolutely vital to “use your time”. Those who choose to be “coy”, holding back out of fear of consequences for “sin” or disobedience, will be punished by the only authority that matters: death. In a world for which there may be no heaven that looks on and takes anyone’s part,87 Herrick’s famous exhortation is no mere literary cliché, no mere exercise in convention. It is a powerful and beautiful statement of the outrageous, sad, and ultimately fatal predicament we all find ourselves in.

  • 88 Sarah Gilead. “Ungathering ‘Gather ye Rosebuds’: Herrick’s Misreading of Carpe Diem”. Criticism, 27 (...)
  • 89 Paul de Man. The Paul de Man Notebooks, ed. by Martin McQuillan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Pr (...)
  • 90 Martin C. Dillon. Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 179.
  • 91 “la nature simplement signitive du langage paraît bien incertaine, partielle ou inessentielle” (Jac (...)

50Yet, for some critics, Herrick’s most famous poem is curiously removed from life, and, as Sarah Gilead argues, incapable of anything other than pointing to “the deceptive capacity of language to contain experience”.88 The intellectual genealogy of this idea is clear enough, partaking as it does of the flavor of Paul de Man’s assertion that “Language always occurs within a range of deceptive appearances which it created itself; for that reason, it always endangers its own innermost being, that is, the authentic act of saying”.89 Consistent with the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, the idea Gilead shares with de Man is that language conceals what it pretends to reveal, and thus poetic language does not actually say what it seems to say. This idea that language conceals, that language is an unstable and untrustworthy medium, is widely shared in mid-to-late twentieth-century continental (and continentally-influenced) thought. For philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger, “it is in language that the unconcealment of things happens. Yet every disclosure, every revelation, is, at the same time, a concealment; language covers things over in the very process of thematization or unconcealment”.90 Jacques Derrida falls right in line by declaring that we have reached a point in which “the simple signifying nature of language appears very uncertain, partial, or inessential”.91 Literary criticism that takes such ideas as a starting point regards poetry as a pretense of meaning that needs to be exposed as meaningless in order that the machinations of languguage and ideology might be revealed.

51Making use of these ideas with enough ingenuity and determination, a remorselessly skilled critical practitioner can quite nearly destroy any sense of life-affirmation in Herrick’s poem, rewriting it to the point of turning it into a verse tract on suicide. The first step is to assert and then emphasize the contradictory nature of Herrick’s theme:

  • 92 Gilead, 135.

A carpe diem poem exists within an established literary subcategory, inhabits an enclosed ontological and significatory space. […] the meanings of the poem are secured by both external traditions (conventional motifs, arguments, moods and tropes) and by the poem’s internal patterning. And yet the carpe diem theme itself celebrates not the rule-bound realms of art, conventionality, contextualization, but rather pure sensory experience. That is, it recommends that which by its form it denies. Pure experience is precisely what language does not offer; experience is always processed, mediated by the cultural forms (including language and art) through which we apprehend it. The carpe diem poem seems to point to, even provide access to, a mysteriously life-enhancing realm of experience but simultaneously substitutes a highly artificial construct—itself—for such experience.92

  • 93 Hamlet, 2.1.65.

52Let’s break that last sentence down. In order to do that, we will move from direct statements to indirect statements, and as Polonius would say, “by indirections find directions out”.93 First, let’s look at the simplest and most direct level of meaning available: “The carpe diem poem […] point[s] to […] a […] life-enhancing realm of experience”. That would be a direct, straightforward, and relatively uncontroversial statement. But note how the critic builds (or tears down) from that basis. The simple suggestion of seeming is added: “The carpe diem poem seems to point to […] a life-enhancing realm of experience”. Though still quite straightforward, this version introduces the smallest of doubts. Next, the critic adds a disingenuous claim about the poem’s power, an absurd strawman: “The carpe diem poem seems to point to, even provide access to, a […] life-enhancing realm of experience”. It is easy to see how a poem might point to such a thing, but how could a poem provide access thereto? The obvious answer is that it cannot. Through the sly suggestion that a poem might seem to have powers that it cannot have, our critic establishes a “sensible” or “common sense” doubt about the poem’s seeming in general. From here, the critic adds more doubt: “The carpe diem poem seems to point to, even provide access to, a mysteriously life-enhancing realm of experience”. This introduces the idea that the seeming is not limited to the poem, but to the world of experience that the poem only seems to point to (and with each move, Herrick’s verse recedes further and further to invisibility). Finally, the finishing touch is added: “The carpe diem poem seems to point to, even provide access to, a mysteriously life-enhancing realm of experience but simultaneously substitutes a highly artificial construct—itself—for such experience”. This last move relies on meaningless inflation of its terms. What is “a highly artificial construct”? As all constructs are “artificial” (made by and through art and artifice), how is it possible for such a construct to be highly artificial, as opposed to simply and plainly artificial? The effect looked for, however, is not precision of definition, so much as it is the enhancement—through rhetorical inflation—of an already threadbare line of reasoning. The last assertion—as no evidence whatsoever is given for the notion that the poem substitutes for experience—completes the trick whereby Herrick’s poem is replaced by an absurd version written by the critic, for the critic, with the express purpose of being deconstructed by the critic.

53Rewritten in this way, Herrick’s “To the Virgins” is merely a tiresome rehearsal of “established” literary forms and ideas, trapped within an old-fashioned and no-longer-negotiable set of conventions regarding life and the communication of emotions and ideas. For the critic, the “meaning” that “naive” readers take from this poem is a philosophical version of fast food: prepackaged in familiar wrapping (the “conventional motifs, arguments, moods and tropes”) with standardized cooking and presentation techniques (“the poem’s internal patterning”). As refashioned by the critic, the product does not, indeed cannot, deliver on its promises.

  • 94 Ibid.
  • 95 Ibid., 140.
  • 96 Gilead, 141.

54With the first, and most crucial step now taken (the construction of a strawman version of the poem), the second step is to distance it from any aspect of life that does not somehow refer to poetry itself, and is not somehow about the acts of writing and meaning. For Gilead, Herrick’s poem can be reduced to “a metaphor for the act of reading and interpreting (‘gathering’ a message)”. For the critic, “the persuasion to pleasure of Herrick’s carpe diem may be read as a persuasion to seek signification: textuality replaces sexuality”.94 This move makes it possible to claim that Herrick’s lyric is an artifact of ruthless competitiveness, a testament to the demands of the male poet’s ego (an idea borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence): “Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins’ is compensatorily self-effacing, quiet, small, innocent, easy, almost anonymous-seeming. But its modesty, its virginal unaggressiveness conceals, perhaps, a kind of textual ruthlessness”.95 This critical formula relies heavily on the use of “shocking” reversals and combinations of ideas, images, and even sound patterns all strung together on the extremely thin thread of “perhaps”. “Textual” is intended to remind the reader of “sexual”, and “virginal […] ruthlessness” is designed to raise the spectre of violence, even rape. Naturally, what else would we expect to find concealed behind “virginal unaggressiveness”, other than “textual ruthlessness”? For the critic, that “ruthlessness” reveals itself in an Oedipal competition in which Herrick establishes his poetic persona as an “aggressive rival to and replacement of the poetic father” through the “acts of textual castration that create ‘To the Virgins’ from the bits and pieces of precursor texts” from “the classical age which produces the literary genera Herrick follows”.96

55As the critical assertions mount ever higher, the third step is to employ the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to argue that the poem does not mean what it merely seems to mean, and may, in fact, mean quite the opposite:

  • 97 Ibid., 146.

By illustrating the unstoppable rush of time, the need to seize the day is made manifest. But the poem’s “aging” also undermines the carpe diem assertion, for if the linear succession from “best” to “worst” is absolutely impervious to human will, action, or decision, then the choice between seizing the day or letting it pass is no choice at all. Not to tarry, not to defer the gathering of rosebuds, is not to defer death, the final gathering, the end of the race. Thus the poem simultaneously illustrates both the wisdom and the folly of heeding its message.97

  • 98 Note how the critic uses the negation, the inversion there to add the appearance of complexity: “no (...)

56Again, the argument relies on unsubstantiated claims that present themselves as authoritative critical judgments. The critic supplies no evidence at all for the “shocking” conclusion that “the poem simultaneously illustrates both the wisdom and the folly of heeding its message”. It is true, of course, that “not to defer”98 gathering rosebuds “is not to defer” death itself. But that is not what the poem claims. Instead it asserts that to defer gathering rosebuds is to defer (possibly until it is too late) the all-too-short experience of the most pleasurable aspects of life. Death is not the question of the poem—the question is what each of us will do with the time left before death. To argue seriously that there is “no choice at all” between grabbing experience and allowing it to pass by, between living actively in the face of inevitable death and waiting passively and obediently for that death to arrive, is to reveal oneself as incapable of (or uninterested in) coherent argument. Only a critic who cannot or will not see past his or her ideological commitments could expect to be taken seriously when advancing this argument. But this is the kind of reasoning required by the step-by-step, paint-by-numbers process of the hermeneutics of suspicion method of reading.

57Finally, the fourth and most crucial step is to reveal the “hidden” meaning of the poem, which in this case means rewriting the entire carpe diem motif. For the critic, far from urging that life be lived to the fullest while there is yet time, Herrick’s famous poem rushes headlong toward death, driven by its own desire into a form of suicide:

  • 99 Ibid., 147–48.

The carpe diem strategy posits sexual pleasure as life-intensifying, and thus a defense against mortality; intense pleasure, whether in anticipation, experience, or memory, in a sense displaces the consciousness or fear of death. But sexuality viewed not as pleasure but as reproduction makes the individual, his experiences, his consciousness, and his very existence, superfluous, expendable. The only perfect defense against fear of death, against the paralyzing anxiety of the coy virgin, is death itself. […] Carpe diem urges “satisfaction” of desire, the feeding of it, but to satisfy desire is to get rid of desire, to destroy desire in the total discharge of need that is accomplished by death. The final rosebud to be gathered is death itself […] Aggression against the self thus occurs both in rejecting desire and in seeking it; the first denies to the self a range of possible experiences […]; the second is that impulse through which is created the replacement for the self in the next generation […]—to seek desire is thus, paradoxically, a form of indirect suicide.99

  • 100 Note the sly way in which the critic shifts the ground beneath sexuality from “pleasure” to “reprod (...)
  • 101 This is consistent with the “nothingness” de Man claims is at the heart of literature: “Here the hu (...)

58Here we have a veritable tour de force of sleights-of-hand,100 reversals, and unsupported assertions dressing themselves up as arguments. Sexuality as reproduction makes the individual expendable. Proof? None is offered. The only perfect defense against the fear of death is death itself. Proof? None. Seeking desire is a form ofindirect suicide”. Proof? Of course not. The point of that final statement lies, not in any actual truth claim, but in its rhetorical effect. Dress up a series of counter-intuitive reversals in negations and inverted syntax, repeat those reversals in forceful language, backed up by the “authority” lent by the reputable journal or publishing house which has printed the piece in which the reversals appear, and wait for compliant, graduate-school-trained readers to fall in line, and start repeating your claims in their presentations, papers, and other “intellectual” productions. After being put through this process, the poem that generations of readers thought they had read has nearly disappeared,101 and the most famous of carpe diem poems has been transformed into a carpe mortem poem. From the critical point of view offered by Gilead, there is no call to life and love in “To the Virgins”, only literary convention, the remorseless progress of time, and the inevitability of death.

  • 102 “l’aspiration révolutionnaire, ça n’a qu’une chance d’aboutir, toujours, au discours du maître. C’e (...)

59Inherent in much of the criticism this book discusses are the twin ideas that literature inevitably serves the interests of the powerful, and that resistance is impossible. Jacques Lacan, for example, insists that resistance always traps one inside the discourse of the power one is resisting, “the revolutionary aspiration has only one possible outcome, always, the discourse of the master. This is what experience proves. What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a Master. You will have one”.102 From this point of view, criticism like Gilead’s ends up arguing that the appearance of a radically life-affirming spirit in Herrick’s poem actually undermines itself, and ends up affirming death. What is perhaps even more astonishing than these oddly authoritarian ideas is how little thought is necessary to put them to use in an interpretive process whose template-driven results are determined in advance of the reading: follow the steps, complete the formula, and voilà, the critic has “revealed” that a poem long-thought to say “X” actually says “not-X”.

  • 103 One notable exception to this trend has been Alexander Leggatt, who regrets what he calls “a curren (...)
  • 104 Gilead, 150.

60Gilead’s article is an artifact of its time, the mid 1980’s, and its place, a Ph.D. written at Northwestern University in 1980, during the peak of the fascination with deconstruction that swept through English departments in American academia. But it is part of a much longer story in literary criticism and interpretation, one that stretches back all the way to Akiba and Origen and their insistence that the Song of Songs be read against its own text. Theological interpreters of the Song of Songs take great care in telling us that the poem’s frankly erotic treatment of love between a man and a woman is really a metaphor for loving God. Modern academic criticism of the troubadours is at pains to assure us that the poetry does not actually mean what it merely appears to mean. Much new historicist and cultural materialist criticism of Shakespeare aims to convince us that despite their anti-authoritarian appearances, Shakespeare’s plays are part of the apparatus of Elizabethan and Jacobean state control.103 Many Donne scholars are particularly concerned with separating the poet’s life from the poet’s written work, as part of a strategy of larger claims that insist that the poems are misogynist and imperialist. And a critic like Gilead tells us that the message of the carpe diem motif in Herrick’s “To the Virgins” is impossible to find: “The longer the reader searches for the carpe diem message in Herrick’s obviously carpe diem poem, the greater difficulty she has in finding it. […] Herrick’s poem disintegrates into a tangle of conflicting concepts, images, and tropes”.104

  • 105 “La difficulté est une monoye que les sçavans employent, comme les joueurs de passe-passe, pour ne (...)
  • 106 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 27. This kind of devotion to the difficult can be seen in the almos (...)
  • 107 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 27.

61Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a form of critical violence that works to undermine poetry’s potential for resistance, and dismiss the sense that poetry is something that might be enjoyed. Such criticism is often written in the kind of deliberately obtuse language that illustrates Montaigne’s maxim: “Difficulty is the currency that the learned employ, like tricksters, in order not to reveal the vanity of their art, and which human stupidity is easily led to take as payment”.105 Things do not seem to have changed since Montaigne’s time: as Felski notes, the “sheer difficulty [of a work] accentuate[s] its allure to a certain kind of critic, convinced, akin to Burke commenting on the sublime, that the obscure is inherently more affecting and awe-inspiring than the clear”.106 There is “a fannish dimension” to this work, “evidenced in a cult of exclusiveness and intense attachment to charismatic figures”.107 What this kind of literary criticism reveals is an antagonism toward poetry, or as Derrida describes it, with an eye on the tradition stretching back to Plato, an intolerance for poetry as a threat to the dominance of the prose-bound philosopher:

  • 108 l’histoire de la philosophie est l’histoire de la prose; ou plutôt du devenir-prose du monde. La ph (...)

the history of philosophy is the history of prose; or, if you will, the prosifying of the world. Philosophy is the invention of prose. Philosophy speaks in prose. […] Before writing, verse served as a kind of spontaneous engraving, a writing before the letter. Intolerant of poetry, philosophy took writing to be the letter.108

  • 109 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 9.

62As de Man approvingly defines it, such criticism is “a methodologically motivated attack on the notion that a literary or poetic consciousness […] can pretend to escape, to some degree, from the duplicity, the confusion, the untruth that we take for granted in the everyday use of language”.109 In the critic’s terms, the old claim of the English Puritan William Prynne is revived: poetry is a lie, and a dangerous one at that.

  • 110 “le sujet agit en tant qu’il est agi par le système” (Louis Althusser. “Idéologie et Appareils Idéo (...)
  • 111 Gilead, 150.

63Criticism dedicated to a “hermeneutics of suspicion” gives us no exit, no recourse as it continually rewrites poetry as compliant with authority (a move the critic couches in the guise of “unmasking” or “revealing” poetry’s hidden ideological nature). In transforming or rewriting such poetry as appears to offer even the slightest glimmer of resistant possibility, the critic makes him or herself into an agent of the oppressive structures of authority, part of a vicious circle of ideology in which “the subject acts as it is acted by the system”.110 He or she does this through a criticism that is tinged with both compulsion and violence in a project which seems to disdain the very poetry it works with: witness the critic’s celebration of violence in her reading of Herrick: “an interrogative reading [of Herrick’s poem] parries with its anti-textual analytical violence the poem’s assertion of its own innocence, and of the reader’s innocent desire to preserve inviolate the simplicity, integrity, and obvious good sense of carpe diem”.111

64But a poem like “To the Virgins” is innocent, in the etymological sense of harmless. No virgins are oppressed or subjugated by being encouraged to live a little before they die; not even if the poem is interpreted as a seduction lyric is its advice harmful to anyone except to the extent to which they are locked within systems of control in a society in which female sexuality is regarded as a valuable commodity to be bought and sold by fathers and (father-chosen) husbands. A short, epigrammatic poem like “To Live Freely”, condenses “To the Virgins” into two lines which only a critic devoted to suspicion could read with interrogative violence:

Let’s live in hast; use pleasures while we may:
Co’d life return, ‘twod never lose a day.
112

  • 113 These are the same kinds of questions that Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (Идиот) poses as Prince Mys (...)

65“Let’s” (let us) is directed toward all, male and female, young and old alike. “Pleasures” may, of course, be sexual pleasures, but they needn’t be limited thereto (unless a critic has a particular ideological point to hammer home). A considerable effort will have to be invested in this short lyric to ensure that it “disintegrates into a tangle of conflicting concepts, images, and tropes” or becomes intelligible primarily as “a form of indirect suicide”. Here, perhaps, the reading method of Rashi is what best serves: the plain meaning of this text is an exhortation to enjoy each day, each moment, because we are all running out of time. And could “life return”, were we given, after the diagnosis of a fatal illness, a short reprieve, an extra week or month, or even year of life, how many of us would waste even a day on drudgery, obedience, and ascetic self-denial?113 Perhaps those who read the poetry of life and love as being actually about a desire for death, but not many others.

66In similar fashion, a poem like “To Daffadills” expresses grief at the shortness of life, and the fading of beauty, not to hide anything from the reader by disintegrating into “a tangle”, not to seduce anyone, nor even to persuade, but merely to commiserate across time and distance, one mortal writer with countless equally mortal readers:

Faire Daffadills, we weep to see
You haste away so soone:
As yet the early-rising Sun
Has not attain’d his Noone.
Stay, stay,
Untill the hasting day
Has run
But to the Even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet Decay,
As you, or any thing.
We die,
As your hours doe, and drie
Away, Like to the Summers raine;
Or as the pearles of Mornings dew
Ne’r to be found againe.
114

67In the face of such awful and meaningless ephemerality, in a world where beauty is born seemingly for the purpose of decaying and dying and disappearing forever, how can anyone take seriously the idea that the carpe diem motif needs to be subjected to an “interrogative reading [that] parries with […] analytical violence the poem’s assertion of its own innocence”? The carpe diem poem is itself what interrogates the real (not merely interpretive) violence of a world in which life exists only to be snuffed out. The carpe diem motif in English poetry is a response to a world which seemed to many to be falling apart:

  • 115 Targoff, 176.

[T]he instability of the political climate leading up to and during the English Civil War created more incentives for seizing immediate and temporary pleasures; the idea that the world was coming to its end had a sufficiently wide reach […]. Many responded to this threat by devoting themselves to repentance and prayer, but others translated this anxiety into a kind of seductive energy, urging the pleasures of the day before the day was no more.115

  • 116 This is the period in which the first stirrings of what we consider the modern form of Atheism are (...)
  • 117 Hamlet 3.1.81–82.
  • 118 Ibid., 2.2.273, 278.

68With death lurking seemingly around every corner, and with the Christian promises of heaven seeming ever more remote to many,116 who, like Hamlet, regarded death as the “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”,117 carpe diem made sense to many contemporary readers in an urgent, visceral way that transcends the cool detachments of our own frames of reference in reading and criticism. The daffodils of Herrick’s poem are not merely a metaphor, they are a frailly beautiful but relentless reminder of death. From the speaker’s point of view, the demise of daffodils is senseless, too hasty, and without any redemptive point or purpose, just like human death, for which there is no remedy, and to which there is no point. Humanity, in Shakespeare’s terms, is “noble in reason, […] infinite in faculty!” But we are also merely a “quintessence of dust”.118 Herrick captures this tragic and perplexing quality by showing the aspiration and uselessness of prayer to a god for whom the deaths of human beings and daffodils appear to be matters of equally depraved indifference: “And, having pray’d together, we / Will go with you along”.

69From the daffodil to the man, death is the end of all lives and all joys, and while the Neoplatonized and Christianized poetic tradition of Dante and Petrarch assumed an afterlife in which greater joys (or greater torments) would be had by all, the carpe diem tradition is rather closer to the metaphysics on offer in King Lear, where “nothing”, and “never” sum up the hopes for life and love after death. Thus, a poem like “To Youth” offers what is, from this perspective, the best possible advice. What point is there in sacrifice and prayer, when heaven seems indifferent to all living things below? Far better to

Drink Wine, and live here blithefull, while ye may:
The morrowes life to late is, Live to-day.
119

70Herrick’s poetry often displays a disregard for social and literary convention, exercising an imaginative freedom that allows him to portray the “imaginary mistresses” of his poems in ways that flout the expectations of his time and place:

  • 120 David Landrum. “Robert Herrick and the Ambiguities of Gender”. Texas Studies in Literature and Lang (...)

The subversive quality of Herrick’s imaginary mistresses derives from their existence in a space imaginatively removed from the conventional restraints that limited women’s freedom […]. This device of creating imaginary women who exist outside social reality enables Herrick [to] be innovative, disruptive, even subversive in his depictions of gender roles.120

  • 121 Shaw, 119.

71This freedom is created by the carpe diem theme itself. In a world in which “nothing” and “never” are our defining expectations of the afterlife, what does it matter if people disobey the conventions set by their societies and peers? Donne serves as an excellent example of the consequences that can ensue from flouting the customs of one’s time and place, but in terms of the eternal death waiting for all of us, how much did it really matter that John Donne and Anne More married without something so temporal as the permission of a father who would soon be, and is now, dead forever? In Herrick’s hands, the carpe diem motif begins to seem like the only rational response to a temporary existence for men and women who would not live as slaves to geographically and temporally fixed authority, and recognised that the “customs of [their] island and tribe are [not] the laws of nature”.121 Neither Herrick nor the carpe diem tradition can be fully understood without recognizing this subversive element:

  • 122 Landrum, 205–06.

Trying to understand Herrick’s poetry dealing with women without recognizing this subversive, parodic element only leads one into a pathless quagmire as far as interpretation goes. Herrick defies the limits of standard interpretation […] using text and language, using poetic liturgy, as a means by which accepted injustices might be mollified and eventually perhaps even corrected.122

  • 123 Ibid., 187.
  • 124 Ceri Sullivan. “The carpe diem topos and the ‘geriatric gaze’ in early modern verse”. Early Modern (...)

72Rather than regarding Herrick through a more jaundiced lens as “the voyeuristic, effeminate pervert that many critics have suggested”,123 or as the old man who inflicts his “geriatric gaze” on the “bouncing mistress” whom he expects to increase “the effort she must make to rouse his manhood”124 when he can no longer “stand to” so quickly as he once did in his youth, seeing Herrick as both parodic and disrespectful of convention helps us understand the urgency of what is perhaps his second most famous poem, “Corinna’s going a Maying”.

73In “Corinna” (whose titular mistress is a reference to the Corrina of Ovid’s Amores), we have the entire carpe diem theme and all of its implications put together in a powerful and beautiful whole. In encouraging Corrina to “goe a Maying”, Herrick’s poem stands up for the joys of the May Day festival, a celebration of spring, fertility, and life, against the increasingly powerful efforts of Puritan authority figures to shut it down. On a day such as this, the poem suggests it would be a sin to refrain:

When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
And sung their thankfull Hymnes: ‘tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whenas a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.
125

74For the Puritans, however, the “sin” was in the keeping of the celebration itself, given the dancing, sexual play, and occasional gender-bending that would go on:

  • 126 Joan Lane. Apprenticeship in England, 1600–1914 (London: University College London Press, 1996), 95

May Day was condemned by Puritan writers for the sexual license it encouraged; the phallic symbolism of the maypole was noted by many. […] These processions contained a strong element of role reversal, for in some the [chimney] sweeps dressed as females [,] but music and collecting contributions from bystanders were common to all.126

75By Herrick’s day, the authorities had been trying, with limited success, to shut down the May Day celebrations for decades. Elizabethan constables gave orders on several occasions for the maypoles to be pulled down, the festivals themselves to be prohibited, and any resisters to be arrested:

  • 127 Richard L. Greaves. Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis: University of Minneso (...)

In Shrewsbury in 1588, the maypole was banned and members of the shearmen’s guild were jailed for opposing the order. At Banbury, Oxon, a Puritan center whose M. P. was Anthony Cope, the high constable ordered the parish constables to take down all maypoles and prohibit festivities in May 1589.127

76By the 1630s, the political mood in England had grown dark and contentious, with many of the Puritan faction condemning nearly all entertainments as the works of the Devil. The year 1633 saw the publication of William Prynne’s Histriomastix, a broadside against everything the author thought sinful in an England rapidly moving toward revolution and civil war. Prynne censures “prophane, and poysonous” plays as “the common Idole, and prevailing evill of our dissolute and degenerous Age”,128 describing them as “the Workes, and Pompes of the very Devill”129 which deal with “nothing else but the Adulteries, Fornications, Rapes, Love-passions, Meritricious, Unchast, and Amorous practices of Lacivious Wicked men”,130 and have “the Divell himselfe for their author”.131 Prynne condemns dancing as “unavoydably sinfull and abominable”,132 and further denounces all “obscene, lacivious, lust-provoking Songs and Poems”,133 “effeminate, amorous, wanton Musicke”,134 and “May-games, Revels, dancing, and other unlawfull pastimes on the Lords day”.135

  • 136 Car s’il y a un péché contre la vie, ce n’est peut-être pas tant d’en désespérer que d’espérer une (...)

77In this environment, “Corinna’s going a Maying” is hardly a light, conventional piece which can be dismissed as being about merely “the deceptive capacity of language to contain experience”, or as a piece in which “textuality replaces sexuality” but all too soon “disintegrates into a tangle of conflicting concepts, images, and tropes”. In the dark and dangerous mood of an increasingly agitated and Puritan-influenced England, “Corinna’s going a Maying” is a radical affirmation of the simple, flesh-bound, sensual delights of being alive. Celebrating life against death—especially in an environment in which life is denigrated as sinful, while death is lauded as a final release from human wickedness—is in itself a revolutionary act. Herrick’s point of view, far from being the conventional tangle of predictable, if contradictory tropes to which Gilead would reduce it, is far-reaching enough that it anticipates the radical freedom asserted by the twentieth-century existentialist Albert Camus, for whom the only sin was the sin against life itself, committed by refusing to live now because of promises or hopes of another life to come: “For if there is a sin against life, it is perhaps not so much in despair, as in hoping to have another life, and evading the implacable grandeur of this one”.136 For Camus, just as for Herrick, we are physical creatures whose loves, lives, and pleasures are neither beastly nor angelic, but fundamentally human; and the only truth worthy of the name lies in the acknowledgement of the ephemeral, and therefore precious, quality of human life:

  • 137 J’apprends qu’il n’est pas de bonheur surhumain, pas d’éternité hors de la courbe des journées. Ces (...)

I realize that there is no superhuman happiness, no eternity outside of the arc of time. These trivial and basic necessities, these relative truths are the only things that move me. The others, the “ideals”, I don’t have soul enough to understand them. Not that we should be like beasts, but the happiness of angels is meaningless to me.137

78For Herrick, the life here and now is perhaps the only truly sacred thing, and the only “sin” is found in refusing the joys of the sacredness of each never-to-be-repeated moment:

Can such delights be in the street,
And open fields, and we not see’t?
Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obey
The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.
138

  • 139 The Tempest 4.1.158.

79Should they delay, or miss their chance, they will be showing themselves unworthy of the precious and rare gifts that this all too brief existence “rounded with a sleep”,139 offers to those reverent enough to appreciate them:

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short; and our dayes run
As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.
140

80The passion for life, for love, for the sheer joy of sensation and experience overflows from this poem like a floodtide overwhelming the shore. Or so it does, at least, from the point of view of a Peshat style of reading, based on the “plain sense” hermeneutic of Rashi. However, from the point of view of Rabbi Akiba, or the early Church father Origen, or the theological readers devoted to the allegorical reading of texts, or the countless academic critics who practise a hermeneutics of suspicion, the poem is a blank canvas, to be written over in ways that suit the ideological demands of the particular and present moment. Such was the interpretive method approved by William Prynne, a man for whom no expressions of moral condemnation could go too far:

[T]he obscenity, ribaldry, amorousnesse, heathenishnesse, and prophanesse of most Play-bookes, Arcadiaes, and fained Histories that are now so much in admiration, is such, that it is not lawfull for any (especially for Children, Youthes, or those of the female sex, who take most pleasure in them) so much as once to read them, for feare they should inflame their lusts, and draw them on to actuall lewdnesse, and prophanesse. Hence Origen, Hierom and others informe us that in ancient times Children and Youthes among the Jews were not permitted to read the Booke of Canticles [the Song of Songs] before they came to the age of 30 years, for feare they should draw those spirituall love passages to a carnall sence, and make them instruments to inflame their lusts.141

81If the old saying is true that you can know someone by the company he or she keeps, then what are we to make of literary critics (and schools of criticism) whose working methods and assumptions are so compatible with those of William Prynne, a man who would shut down theaters, eliminate dancing, and deny even the reading of poetry to anyone who is not a male of thirty or older? William Kerrigan once observed that such ideologically-driven criticism had “disdain for the personal sphere of existence”, and told an interesting story of a conversation between academics to illustrate his point:

  • 142 William Kerrigan. “Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick”. George Herbert Journal, 14: 1–2 (Fall 1990), 15 (...)

In the days when New Historicism was first in the air a prominent scholar explained to me over a beer that Herrick’s lyrics on silks and petticoats were really about the vestment controversies. I must have chuckled. “What do you think they’re about?” the scholar demanded. I shrugged. “Women’s clothes?” Her icy expression let me know in no uncertain terms that great lyrics could not be attached to such unworthy objects.142

  • 143 Ibid.

82The “icy expression” of the humorless critic is the telling detail. We need, as Kerrigan notes, to find a way of writing about poems that “allows them to be what they seem to be”,143 because too many critics no longer read poetry so much as pillage it, occupy it, and force it to submit. When we end up looking and sounding like William Prynne, a humorless Puritan fanatic and ideologue, perhaps it really is time to pull back from gazing into the abyss.

83Carpe diem poetry poses a simple choice. Will you live now, as you would if there were no laws—either human or divine, secular or theological—against the joys of life, the joys of love, the joys of living uninhibitedly in the fullest and most human and embodied sense? Or will you obey, do as you are told, refrain from the physical and passionate side of a life that you have been taught is sinful and shameful, spending your only years on Earth apologizing for being alive, apologizing for wanting the things you want but are convinced that you should not want? Will you take off the mind forg’d manacles? Or will you wear them, for the rest of your life, as you patiently and obediently wait for death?

84Choose.

Notes

1 Ruth F. Glancy. Thematic Guide to British Poetry (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 43.

2 Horace. Horace: Epodes and Odes, ed. by Daniel H. Garrison (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 39.

3 Targoff, 165.

4 Ibid., 166.

5 Ibid., 171.

6 Ibid., 176.

7 Julius Caesar 2.2.36.

8 Stanley Fish. “Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power”. In Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds. Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 223.

9 John Roberts. “John Donne’s Poetry: An Assessment of Modern Criticism”. John Donne Journal, 1 (1982), 60.

10 Ibid., 67.

11 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Donne_by_Isaac_Oliver.jpg

12 William Empson. “Rescuing Donne”. In John Haffenden, ed. Essays on Renaissance Literature, Vol. One: Donne and the New Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 159.

13 Achsah Guibbory. Returning to John Donne (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 3.

14 Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1894) 4, https://books.google.com/books?id=lSk2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA4

15 Anthony Easthope. Poetry and Phantasy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 193.

16 Catherine Belsey. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 133.

17 Guibbory, 3.

18 Richard Baker. A Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: Printed by George Sawbridge at the Bible on Ludgate-hill, 1670), 447, https://books.google.com/books?id=BnIVsU0RtzUC&pg=PA447

19 John Donne. John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. by A. J. Smith (New York: Penguin, 1971), 125, ll. 33–35. Further references to this volume will be by line number, Donne, and page number.

20 ll. 17–24, Donne, 125.

21 ll. 25–32, Donne, 125.

22 Achsah Guibbory. “‘Oh Let Mee Not Serve So’: The Politics of Love in Donne’s Elegies”. English Literary History, 57: 4 (Winter 1990), 812, https://doi.org/10.2307/2873086

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 822.

25 Ibid., 821.

26 Here, the observation of Foucault is useful: “The relationship of power and the rebelliousness of freedom cannot be separated” (“La relation de pouvoir et l’insoumission de la liberté ne peuvent donc être séparées”) (“Le Sujet e le Pouvoir”. In his Dits et Écrits. Vol. IV: 1980–1988, 237).

27 ll. 41–43, Donne, 125.

28 R. V. Young. Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 75.

29 For further discussion, see Michael Bryson, The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King (London: Associated University Presses, 2004), 119–22.

30 Here we can see in Donne a reworking of the idea of the woman as angel, found in so much Italian poetry of the period between Lentini and Petrarch, through the recovery of the idea of eroticism and desire in a dynamic in which power is mutual.

31 Robert Sternberg. Cognitive Psychology (Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage, 2009), 512. This kind of thinking is rampant in what Karl Popper calls “pseudo-science”. Popper maintains that “It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory—if we look for confirmations”, but that “[e]very genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it” (Karl Popper, 36, 37).

32 Ilona Bell. “Gender Matters: The Women in Donne’s Poems”. In Achsah Guibbory, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 201.

33 Ibid., 208.

34 ll. 28–29, Donne, 125.

35 ll. 62–64, Donne, 162.

36 ll. 65–67, Donne, 162.

37 l. 68, Donne, 162.

38 l. 70, Donne, 162.

39 Bell, 204.

40 ll. 1–2, Donne, 149.

41 ll. 1–2, Donne, 149.

42 ll. 1–2, Donne, 151.

43 David Edwards. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit (New York: Continuum, 2001), 282.

44 John Stubbs. John Donne: The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 154.

45 Ibid., 154.

46 L.b. 526: Letter from John Donne, The Savoy, London, to Sir George More, 1601/1602 February 2. Early Modern Manuscripts Online, http://emmo.folger.edu/view/Lb526/semiDiplomatic

47 ll. 1–9, Donne, 47.

48 Nancy Jo Coover Andreasen. John Donne: Conservative Revolutionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967). Quoted in Larson, 164.

49 The most infamous of the “rakes” was John Wilmott, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, whose life and poetry was a scandal in the court of Charles II. As Samuel Johnson describes his life and death:
[I]n a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study, perhaps, yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard of every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness, till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay [and] died July 26, 1680, before he had completed his thirty-fourth year.
Samuel Johnson.
The Lives of the Most Eminent English poets, with Critical Observations on Their Works, Vol. 1. (London: J. Fergusson, 1819), 150–51, https://books.google.com/books?id=e_sTAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA150).

50 ll. 10–18, Donne, 47.

51 Stubbs, 170.

52 Ibid., 174.

53 ll. 28–36, Donne, 47–48.

54 ll. 44–45, Donne, 48.

55 Achsah Guibbory. “Erotic Poetry”. In her, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 138.

56 l. 2, Donne, 53.

57 l. 4, Donne, 53.

58 ll. 5–13, Donne, 53–54.

59 ll. 14–20, Donne, 54.

60 ll. 21–28, Donne, 54.

61 A similar spirit is found in Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” (published in Robert Chester’s Loves Martyr of 1601), where two lovers “lov’d, as love in twain / Had the essence but in one; / Two distincts, division none: / Number there in love was slain” (ll. 25–28).

62 ll. 49–56, Donne, 55.

63 ll. 68–76, Donne, 55–56.

64 ταῖς ψυχαῖς κάλλος” (Plato. Symposium 210c).

65 “l corpo è cosa diversissima dalia bellezza, e non solamente non le accresce, ma le diminuisce la sua perfezione” (Castiglione, 254–55).

66 Merritt Hughes. “The Lineage of ‘The Extasie’”. Modern Language Review, 27: 1 (January 1932), 2, https://doi.org/10.2307/3716215

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69 Frank A. Doggett. “Donne’s Platonism”. The Sewanee Review, 42: 3 (July–September 1934), 285.

70 Ibid., 288.

71 Ibid., 289–90.

72 Charles Mitchell. “Donne’s ‘The Extasie’: Love’s Sublime Knot”. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 8: 1, The English Renaissance (Winter 1968), 92, https://doi.org/10.2307/449412

73 Ibid., 100.

74 T. Katharine Thomason. “Plotinian Metaphysics and Donne’s ‘Extasie’”. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 22: 1, The English Renaissance (Winter 1982), 93–94, https://doi.org/10.2307/450219

75 Catherine Gimelli Martin. “The Erotology of Donne’s ‘Extasie’ and the Secret History of Voluptuous Rationalism”. Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, 44: 1 (2004), 123, https://doi.org/10.1353/sel.2004.0008

76 Ibid., 123.

77 Ibid.

78 William Blake. “There is No Natural Religion”. In The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. by David V. Erdman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 3.

79 Martin, 123, quoting from Robert Watson, The Rest Is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 164.

80 Hamlet 1.2.76.

81 ll. 1–4, Donne, 80.

82 Ibid., ll. 5–10.

83 ll. 23–24 Donne, 81.

84 Ibid., ll. 25–30.

85 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Herrick_(poet).jpg

86 Robert Herrick. The Complete Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. by Alexander B. Grosart. 3 vols. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1876), Vol. 1, 144–45, ll. 1–16, https://books.google.com/books?id=n14JAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA144. Further references to these volumes will be by line number, Herrick, volume number, and page number.

87 Macbeth 4.3.230–31.

88 Sarah Gilead. “Ungathering ‘Gather ye Rosebuds’: Herrick’s Misreading of Carpe Diem”. Criticism, 27: 2 (Spring 1985), 135.

89 Paul de Man. The Paul de Man Notebooks, ed. by Martin McQuillan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 174.

90 Martin C. Dillon. Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 179.

91 “la nature simplement signitive du langage paraît bien incertaine, partielle ou inessentielle” (Jacques Derrida. L’Ecriture et la Différence [Paris: Seuil, 1967], 9–10).

92 Gilead, 135.

93 Hamlet, 2.1.65.

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid., 140.

96 Gilead, 141.

97 Ibid., 146.

98 Note how the critic uses the negation, the inversion there to add the appearance of complexity: “not to defer gathering”, rather than merely “gathering”. Gathering rosebuds does not defer death—this is a simple, straightforward statement. Not to defer gathering rosebuds is not to defer death—this statement cloaks itself, through its negations and convolutions, in an appearance of profundity, which lends a kind of thinly-woven authority to the statement that follows.

99 Ibid., 147–48.

100 Note the sly way in which the critic shifts the ground beneath sexuality from “pleasure” to “reproduction”, before making the unsupported assertion that “reproduction makes the individual […] expendable”.

101 This is consistent with the “nothingness” de Man claims is at the heart of literature: “Here the human self has experienced the void within itself, and the invented fiction, far from filling the void, asserts itself as a pure nothingness, our nothingness stated and restated by a subject that is the agent of its own instability” (Blindness and Insight, 19).

102 “l’aspiration révolutionnaire, ça n’a qu’une chance d’aboutir, toujours, au discours du maître. C’est ce que l’expérience en a fait la preuve. Ce à quoi vous aspirez comme révolutionnaire, c’est à un Maître. Vous l’aurez” (Jacques Lacan. Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XVII: L’envers de la Psychanalyse, ed. by Jacques Alain Miller [Paris: Seuil, 1991], 239).

103 One notable exception to this trend has been Alexander Leggatt, who regrets what he calls “a current tendency to see society as a structure of oppression and exploitation, and to read Shakespeare accordingly” (Alexander Leggatt. Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays [New York: Routledge, 2003], viii).

104 Gilead, 150.

105 “La difficulté est une monoye que les sçavans employent, comme les joueurs de passe-passe, pour ne descouvrir la vanité de leur art, et de la quelle l’humaine bestise se paye ayséement” (Michel de Montaigne. “Apologie de Raimond de Sebonde”. In Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne, Vol. 2, ed. by Fortunat Strowski [Bordeaux: Pech, 1906], 234, https://archive.org/stream/lesessaisdemi02mont#page/234). Montaigne goes on to quote from Lucretius’De Rerum Natura 1.639, 641–42, speaking of the famously obscure Heraclitus, who was:
Clarus, ob obscurum linguam, magis inter inanes,
Omnia enim stolidi magis admirantur amantque
Inversis quae sub verbis latitantia cernunt.
Celebrated for his obscurity, especially among the inane,
For all the stupid greatly admire and love
That which is concealed beneath inverted words.
Aristotle makes a similar comment when he notes that “knowing themselves ignorant, men worship those whose speech lies above their reckoning” (
συνειδότες δ᾽ ἑαυτοῖς ἄγνοιαν τοὺς μέγα τι καὶ ὑπὲρ αὐτοὺς λέγοντας θαυμάζουσιν) (Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics I, ed. by H. Rackham [Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926], 10, ll. 26–27). In writing of the Paul de Man affair, Robert Alter sounds like a modern (if somewhat angrier) Montaigne, as he describes the situation as one in which “to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said”, and that de Man “got away with it because of the gullibility of American scholars” (“Paul de Man Was a Total Fraud”. New Republic. April 5, 2014, https://newrepublic.com/article/117020/paul-de-man-was-total-fraud-evelyn-barish-reviewed).

106 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 27. This kind of devotion to the difficult can be seen in the almost de rigueur political contempt for the idea of clarity expressed (with ironic clarity) by Trink T. Minh-ha: “Clarity is a means of subjection, a quality both of official taught language and of correct writing, two old mates of power: together they flow, together they flower, vertically, to impose an order” (Trink T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other [Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989, 16–17).

107 Felski, The Limits of Critique, 27.

108 l’histoire de la philosophie est l’histoire de la prose; ou plutôt du devenir-prose du monde. La philosophie est l’invention de la prose. Le philosophe parle en prose. […] Avant l’écriture, le vers serait en quelque sorte une gravure spontanée, une écriture avant la lettre. Intolérant à la poésie, le philosophe aurait pris l’écriture à la lettre.
Jacques Derrida. De la Grammatologie, 406. Emphasis added.

109 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 9.

110 “le sujet agit en tant qu’il est agi par le système” (Louis Althusser. “Idéologie et Appareils Idéologiques d’État” [1970]. Les Classiques des Sciences Sociales [Quebec: Université du Québec à Chicoutimi], 44, http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/althusser_louis/ideologie_et_AIE/ideologie_et_AIE.pdf).

111 Gilead, 150.

112 ll. 1–2, Herrick, Vol. 2, 115, https://books.google.com/books?id=C21DAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA115

113 These are the same kinds of questions that Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (Идиот) poses as Prince Myshkin tells the story (based on Dostoevsky’s own experience of a narrowly-averted execution) of a man who faced what he believed would be the last moments of his life, and suddenly thought of how precious time would be to him, if only he were spared:
What if I did not die! What if I came back to life-what infinity! And all this would be mine! I would then treat every minute as a century, not losing anything, calculate every minute, so as to spend none of them in vain!
Что, если бы не умирать! Что, если бы воротить жизнь,-какая бесконечность! И всё это было бы мое! Я бы тогда каждую минуту в целый век обратил, ничего бы не потерял, каждую бы минуту счетом отсчитывал, уж ничего бы даром не истратил!’
Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Идиот [The Idiot] (St. Petersburg: A. Suvorin, 1884), 62.

114 ll. 1–19, Herrick, Vol. 2, 35, https://books.google.com/books?id=C21DAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA35

115 Targoff, 176.

116 This is the period in which the first stirrings of what we consider the modern form of Atheism are developing. For further discussion, see Michael Bryson, The Atheist Milton (London: Routledge, 2012).

117 Hamlet 3.1.81–82.

118 Ibid., 2.2.273, 278.

119 ll. 1–2, Herrick, Vol. 2, 209, https://books.google.com/books?id=C21DAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA209

120 David Landrum. “Robert Herrick and the Ambiguities of Gender”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 49: 2 (2007), 195, https://doi.org/10.1353/tsl.2007.0012

121 Shaw, 119.

122 Landrum, 205–06.

123 Ibid., 187.

124 Ceri Sullivan. “The carpe diem topos and the ‘geriatric gaze’ in early modern verse”. Early Modern Literary Studies, 14: 3 (January 2009), 8.1–21 http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/14–3/Sullcarp.html

125 Lines 10–14, Herrick, Vol. 1, 116, https://books.google.com/books?id=n14JAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA116

126 Joan Lane. Apprenticeship in England, 1600–1914 (London: University College London Press, 1996), 95.

127 Richard L. Greaves. Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 426.

128 William Prynne. Histriomastix (London: Printed by E. A. and W. I. for Michael Sparke, 1633), Sig. B1v, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/2

129 Ibid., Sig. G2r, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/43

130 Ibid., Sig. K3v, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/70

131 Ibid., Sig. S1v, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/130

132 Ibid., Sig. Ii1r, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/241

133 Ibid., Sig. Ll3r, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/261

134 Ibid., Sig. Nn4r, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/279

135 Ibid., Sig. Kkkkk4r, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/n922

136 Car s’il y a un péché contre la vie, ce n’est peut-être pas tant d’en désespérer que d’espérer une autre vie, et se dérober à l’implacable grandeur de celle-ci.
Albert Camus. “L’été à Alger”. In his Noces suivi de L’été (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 49.

137 J’apprends qu’il n’est pas de bonheur surhumain, pas d’éternité hors de la courbe des journées. Ces biens dérisoires et essentiels, ces vérités relatives sont les seules qui m’émeuvent. Les autres, les “idéales”, je n’ai pas assez d’âme pour les comprendre. Non qu’il faille faire la bête, mais je ne trouve pas de sens au bonheur des anges.
Ibid., 47–48.

138 Lines 37–42, Herrick, Vol. 1, 118, https://books.google.com/books?id=n14JAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA118

139 The Tempest 4.1.158.

140 Lines 57–70, Herrick, Vol. 1, 119, https://books.google.com/books?id=n14JAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA119

141 Prynne, Sig. Aaaaaa2r-Aaaaaa2v, https://archive.org/stream/maspla00pryn#page/912

142 William Kerrigan. “Kiss Fancies in Robert Herrick”. George Herbert Journal, 14: 1–2 (Fall 1990), 157, https://doi.org/10.1353/ghj.1990.0014

143 Ibid.

Table des illustrations

Légende John Donne, portrait after Isaac Oliver (possibly late 17th century, based on a work of 1616).11
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4393/img-1.jpg
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Légende Robert Herrick, portrait by Edward Everett Hale, in The Hawthorne Readers, Book 4 (1904).85
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4393/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 15k

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